By Michael Lewis
CENTER MORICHES, N.Y. — For just about the past decade in late October, it has become as traditional on Eastern Long Island as pumpkin picking, the leaves turning color and Halloween.
Center Moriches just reaches the Suffolk County Class B boys final again and again and again.
“It’s a good habit,” Center Moriches head coach Chris O’Brien said. “I like it.”
For the eighth time in nine years, the Red Devils booked a spot in the final. Their latest achievement came on a blustery Wednesday afternoon via a 4-1 triumph over long-time rival and third-seeded Mattituck.
“These kids worked their butts off and I’m just thrilled for the fact,” said O’Brien, who left immediately to watch the other semifinal — Babylon vs. Hampton Bays. “We’ve been getting better as the year goes on.”
The defending state champions will continue their quest to reach Middletown, N.Y., the perennial site of the boys state championship. They will meet fourth-seeded Hampton Bays, 2-1 upset winners over top-seeded Babylon at Diamond in the Pines in Coram at 6 p.m. Sunday.
“I like our chances,” said forward Tommy Luongo, who scored twice.
Given how the Red Devils (11-4-2) have played recently, it didn’t matter which team they faced for the right to play in next week’s Long Island championship.
“Playing Hampton Bays during the league, we beat them once and tied them another,” Luongo said prior to the Hampton Bays-Babylon result. “We know how they play, what their strengths and weaknesses are. Babylon, we haven’t played yet. We’ve played them in the past. We know what they’re about.”
It remains to be seen whether Center Moriches will reach the state final four Nov. 8-9, but the team has improved since the start of the season and gained momentum, recording a 6-1-2 mark in its last nine matches. Most of those games were against Class A teams in League VI.
“For a team that was really evolving as the season went on, it’s hard to say that after we had such a successful year last year — it’s a totally different team — because of the fact we lost a lot of our high-powered guys — some of the younger guys came along and played well,” O’Brien said.
“It’s the small stuff. It’s buying into how we want to play. Even though they’re a different cast of characters, we try to play a possession, knock the ball around, get everybody involved.”
Luongo was a member of the state champions and he has seen the 2018 version of the Red Devils grow together.
“This year was a lot of learning experience because a lot of the guys that graduated, we had such a clique,” he said. “The whole team had just one giant clique, so much chemistry together. The guys coming up filled their spots well, but its just the chemistry wasn’t there at the start. So, we started slow. We picked it up.”
The Red Devils snapped a 1-1 draw by scoring three goals over a span of 5:27 late in the second half to turn the game on its end.
A thrown-in by Matt Alifano was the difference as it started the winning goal sequence. The ball bounced around the Mattituck (10-6) penalty area. Jack Mahoney touched the ball to Mike Bartholomew, who slotted it past goalkeeper James Jacobs at 69:55 of the 80-minute affair.
“That was the difference in the game, really, for me,” Mattituck head coach Will Hayes said. “Alifano’s long throw-ins were a constant threat for us. It’s like being under siege in a trench. Eventually you break.”
Luongo converted a feed from Jack Wicks at 73:40 and Wicks put the exclamation point on the match by slipping in a rebound of Bartholonew’s shot with 4:38 remaining.
The game was not played in Center Moriches’ football stadium because the grass field was a mess and O’Brien felt it was conducive to good soccer, especially with so much at stake in the playoffs. So, it was moved to a nearby artificial turf field on school grounds. In contrast to the football stadium’s east-west configuration, the new venue was north-south as the teams were forced to battle winds.
As it turned out, the wind came from the north, which was at Center Moriches’ backs in the first half. Yet, the hosts struggled.
“We thought we were a better team against the wind,” O’Brien said. “We like to hold the ball. We like to knock the ball around a little bit. With the wind, we didn’t identify who we were. We were not playing our style of play because we were way too direct.
“So, against the wind I told them it was going to settle us down. It’s going to make us keep the ball on the ground and that’s what was the key. And winning the midfield. I think Matt Alifano was a beast in the middle of the field. Every 50-50 ball he won. Every time there was a break our backline played tremendously well when they didn’t win the ball outright. They kept a tight line.”
The Red Devils were given their first goal on a silver platter with the game only 5:40 into the match. A communication error ensued as Jacobs threw his distribution to Bryan Soto, but the left back wasn’t looking. Ryan McDermott picked off the pass, dribbled the ball to the right end line and drove a ball that Jacobs managed to get a piece of. Luongo, however, tucked home the rebound for a 1-0 lead.
“I’ll take it,” Luongo said.
“It was a miscue between the goalkeeper and the left back,” Hayes said. “James thought that the left back, Bryan Soto, was ready for the ball, and Bryan thought that he was going to punt the ball up the field, so when James threw the ball out, Bryan didn’t know about it. So, it’s not any one player’s fault. They need to communicate better in that circumstance. As a result of that, we gave up a very costly goal because of a miscue between two good players, and that happens.”
Mattituck equalized at 28:42, when Alp Kilinic, off a Dane Reda assist, beat goalkeeper Curtis Copenhaver.
“It was a great goal on their part because [Jack] Burkhardt just outworked us,” O’Brien said. “Then we got caught flat-footed in the back, the only time all day long. We didn’t identify the second kid going forward. That’s one of the things we certainly have to work on because if we get lucky enough to go through, identifying more dangerous players is important.”
While this was yet another chapter in the most storied soccer derby on Long Island, none of the animosity that transpired in the past occurred on the pitch. It was an intense, hard-fought match, but very little rough stuff.
“In terms of rivalries, it’s one of the big ones, but there’s not a lot of the venom that there used to be,” Hayes said. “I mean, there would be heavy tackles all over the field and there would be fights breaking out in the stands. Now it’s just two teams that respect each other.”
The rivalry goes all the way back to 1937, when the Tuckers defeated the Red Devils, 1-0, to win its very first county title.
“We have ultimate respect for their program for what they do,” O’Brien said. “Will took over for Mat [Litchhult] and they didn’t skip a beat. They played hard. They actually outworked us in the first half. To come out and to outwork out them in the second half was a real feather in our cap because we could have said, ‘All right, we don’t have the wind.’ We relished that. We accepted that challenge and we played like we like to play.”
And to get a chance to play again another day.